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A CurtainUp Book Review
Hellman and Hammett: The Legendary Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammettby Joan Mellen
By Elyse Sommer
Lillian Hellman's success as a playwright began with The Little Foxes written and produced on Broadway when she was just twenty-eight years old. Her other plays--The Children's, The Autumn Garden, Another Part of the Forest and Watch On the Rhine and Toys in the Attic --also enjoyed critical success. Movie versions, revivals, college productions continue to introduce new audiences to her work. However Hellman's status as a celebrity, in her own time and beyond her death, stems largely from her well-publicized affair with the mystery novelist Dashiell Hammett, her contentious relationship with other celebrities as well as her three best-selling memoirs.
The fact that Hellman's memoirs often strayed from the facts in order to perpetrate her own legend has in turn tempted other biographers to tell it as it really was. Loving celebrity as she did, she might relish the idea that she continues to inspire biographers but not the inability to control the content.
Of the volumes published about her since her death, Peter Feibleman's memoir of his relationship with her, (Lilly), is the one on which he based the new Broadway play Cakewalk. Knowing her penchant for turning against biographers, even those she liked and considered friends, he might well have jeapordized the considerable financial benefits that accrued to him as her literary co-executor.
The most recent archeological dig into the Hellman legend is Joan Mellen's no holds barred dual biography of Hellman and Hammett which draws on a wealth of newly available research.. Those who get a chance to see Cakewalk will find that this book fills in a lot of the play's gaps as it peels away the myths from the facts. It also puts Feibleman's relationship to Hellman into its proper perspective for, like the other men in her life, he was important in a strictly personal sense. The man who exerted a seminal influence on both her personality and on her work as a playwright was Dashiell Hammett the author of such classic mysteries as The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest and The Thin Man. How Hellman and Hammet's complex personalities affected their life together and apart makes for absorbing reading indeed.
The role Hammett played in helping Hellman to develop a well-crafted play is of particular interest. Chapter 4, "The Literary Gift",--(Part 2, Chapter 4) underscore why Hellman's mentor role to Peter Feibleman is one of the weakest elements of Cakewalk. The gift referred to in the chapter title was the plot of her first and most ground breaking play, The Chidren's Hour. Hammett had discovered the story of the Drumheugh case of two teachers ruined because one of their pupils accuses them of being lesbians in a book called Bad Companions.. He saw Lillian's reflection in the lying child and so, instead of using the story himself as he at first intended, he gave it to her. What's more he patiently and relentlessly saw her through rewrite after rewrite. At one point she said "If this isn't any good. I'll never write again. I may even kill myself." His was the ideal mentorship since it allowed her to absorb the best he had to offer and at the same time develop her own direction.
Since it was Hammett who wanted to write a play before Hellman did, you might say she was guided by his motivation as well as his method. While Mellen uncovered no written evidence that he suffered pangs of jealousy when their star patterns reversed--hers on the rise and his grounded by alcoholism--she's probably not off the mark in conjecturing about the likelihood that her success was something of a bittersweet satisfaction for him. There was never much question about Lillian mentoring Hammett since he was a successful writer when they met. However, she did serve as a role model for Nora Charles of the Thin Man, (the book more than the movie).
With a Lincoln Center revival of The Little Foxes in the offing, the chapter titled "Hammett and>The Little Foxes"--(Part 3, Chapter 9)--is also enlightening. The play, its subject her own Jewish bourgeois Southern family, marked the resumption of "her Faustian bargain"--a relationship which would never give her the sexual loyalty and personal nurturing she yearned for, but which would provide her with Hammett's professional nurturing. Whole notebooks filled with his suggestions exist and many are detailed in this chapter. Despite the play's enormous success, working on it with Hammett failed to make their relationship more emotionally satisfying.
As Hammett's literary executor, Hellman was able to control his many would-be biographers (Chapter 28). Since this resulted in hurtful splits even with those considered to be her friends, one wonders how she would have felt about Peter Feibleman's Lilly. Mellen's biography would, of course, have been out of the question and, fortunately for her, Feibleman did not follow in Hellman's footsteps when she asked for his cooperation (freely given and gratefully acknowledged in her Prologue). Mellen's take on his relationship with her is quite different from the passionate interlude depicted in Cakewalk. Considering her credentials as an academic and a biographer, the Mellen version carries a stronger stamp of believability. Because of the theatrical framework
within which this review is written, we've focused on the aspects of Hellman that relate to her career as a playwright and the legendary aspects of her life dramatized in Cakewalk. Obviously, a book tallying up close to 600 pages covers much more--including the details about events that labelled Hellman and Hammett as the "Communist couple." For anyone curious about one of the most eccentric, radical and intriguing couples of this century, this is certainly the book that delivers.